Having a family member or close friend in the hospital is always stressful. But it can be even harder during the holidays, a time that is supposed to be marked by joy, not pain. Balancing these conflicting emotions can be tricky. Should you try to follow the holiday traditions you usually do, or not?

First, accept the difficulties

Priscilla Armstrong faced this question a couple years ago. Her mother Lili was hospitalized off and on for years, and for the last time right after New Year’s in 2015. After a week-long hospitalization, the family was then able to bring Lili home, but sadly, she passed away about a month later.

Often, the first step in handling a family member’s illness over the holidays is accepting the fact that it’s going to be difficult, says J. Randall Curtis, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Cambia Palliative Care Center of Excellence at the University of Washington.

“Recognizing that it’s a stressful time and not beating yourself up over it can be helpful for people,” Curtis says.

It’s also important to recognize how you process stress in this kind of situation. Some people grieve or acknowledge fear by expressing their emotions, but others have to actively work through emotions by doing rather than feeling, says Tracy Ng, a palliative care social worker who works with patients and families at UW Medical Center.

Even if you are comfortable acknowledging your emotions, acknowledge that other people in the family might not be.

“Don’t assume someone isn’t grieving because they aren’t crying,” Ng says.

How to make the season meaningful

 Here are some other ideas for making the holidays meaningful if you’re spending a lot of time at the hospital.

Bring the holidays to the hospital

If your family member can’t join your regular festivities, bring the festivities to them. Put up holiday decorations in their hospital room and have the family exchange gifts there. If the person in the hospital can’t buy gifts, Ng suggests having them write letters or holiday cards. Bringing in their favorite holiday food can be a source of joy and comfort, too.

Armstrong says her mom also enjoyed hearing her granddaughter talk about how much she enjoyed seeing the Nutcracker ballet, even though she hadn’t been able to go herself.

Know that it’s OK to opt out

On the other hand, if you aren’t feeling festive, recognize that is completely fine.

“It’s important if someone’s not feeling up to celebrating to not expect that of yourself and not to necessarily expect that of a family member,” Curtis says.

If your loved one is expected to leave the hospital soon, you could also postpone holiday activities until after they are discharged.

Be there for each other

While it’s important to support the person who is ill, it’s also important for the family to support each other. Armstrong says she and her family took walks together outside of the hospital every day while her mother was hospitalized, and everyone took turns staying with her so the other family members could eat and sleep.

Arranging visits from family and friends for the person who is hospitalized can also be a great way to recapture some seasonal joy and focus on one of the main things that make the holidays special: being with people you care about. Armstrong’s mother received visits from loved ones who lived both near and far. “I was surprised by how much energy the visits seemed to give her,” Armstrong says.

Get kids involved

For children in the family, seeing their loved one in the hospital can be hard because they may not fully understand what that means, or why the holiday traditions they’re used to suddenly aren’t happening. Curtis recommends having an honest conversation with kids about what is going on and to prepare them for what they might see at the hospital, while still recognizing what each child is capable of handling.

Letting them visit the hospital can then be beneficial for everyone, Ng says, as can letting them get involved in holiday activities so they can express themselves. If you’re decorating the hospital room, let them help, or help them pick out a present for your relative that’s appropriate for the hospital—like a pair of cozy slippers or a soft blanket.

Know your resources

 Don’t be afraid to ask for help or guidance. Both Curtis and Ng emphasize that reaching out to hospital providers and staff, be they nurses, social workers, spiritual care workers or palliative care team members, is helpful, even if you’re only looking for emotional support.

“We provide a space for families to talk about the significance of the holidays and any emotions that might come with that,” Ng says.

Palliative care providers can be particularly helpful, Curtis says, because their goal is to help families and patients recognize what their specific healthcare goals are and how those goals can be met, and providing support along the way.

Live in the moment

At first, Armstrong says she was cautious as her mother’s caregiver: She made sure she did everything by the book to ensure the best results. Yet, she eventually realized that having this approach 24/7 wasn’t necessarily helping either of them.

She started encouraging her mom to do more things that were important to her and worked to worry about her less and be more spontaneous. This helped her mom find more enjoyment in life, Armstrong says.

“I’d suggest doing your best to be present and enjoy every minute you can with your loved one,” she says.


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